Facilitating Discussions In Classrooms Using the Fishbowl Strategy
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Facilitating Discussions In Classrooms Using the Fishbowl Strategy

Michael Harris’ blog, The Five Advantages of Teaching with Discussions, provides the following payoffs for educators to increase student engagement in classroom discussions.

Students:

  • Explore different perspectives.
  • Assume more ownership of learning.
  • Explore topics deeper.
  • Actively engage.
  • Develop comfort with ambiguity and complexity.

Discussions are also critical for students to master college and career ready communication skills found in most systems’ standards: For example, discussions:

  • Prepare and refer to evidence to stimulate a thoughtful, well-reasoned exchange of ideas.
  • Allow students to work with peers to promote civil, democratic discussions and decision-making.
  • Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that probe reasoning and evidence; clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions; and promote divergent and creative perspectives.
  • Respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives; synthesize comments, claims, and evidence made on all sides of an issue; resolve contradictions when possible.
  • Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric, assessing the stance, premises, links among ideas, word choice, points of emphasis, and tone used.

The fishbowl strategy can create an opportunity to engage students in consciously focusing on communication skills while engaging in discussions around critical course content. While a fishbowl is suitable for any discussion setting it is especially effective when exploring multiple perspectives, opinions, or dilemmas.

Discussion group concept

Possible Guidelines:

  • Arrange students so that one group of students will take part in the discussion while the remainder of the class is positioned to observe the conversation. The discussion could be among half the class or a smaller group or pair.
  • Different processes can be used to switch students between discussion participants and focused listeners. You might have half the class discussing while half observe and then switch roles. Another strategy allows an observing student to tap a classmate when they want to switch and join the discussion.
  • Share expectations for students for both roles of participant and observer. Often you will want students to have done some preliminary work to prepare for the discussion. Sometimes observers are focused on the information, ideas and opinions being shared and comparing it to their own. At other times, observers may focus on the conversation skills their classmates are employing and may be asked to provide feedback to the group or to individuals.

Teacher Paul Bogush posted this video explaining and modeling fishbowl with his middle school students.

Here are some samples of tools/forms to guide observers’ focus on content or skills.

  • Debriefing and reflection following a fishbowl activity can increase students’ learning of both content and communication skills. Students can assess their performance as listeners and as participants in a written response or paired partner conversation.

Instructional leaders frequently need to gain these same results from a teacher audience:

  • Explore different perspectives.
  • Assume more ownership of learning.
  • Explore topics deeper.
  • Actively engage.
  • Develop comfort with ambiguity and complexity.

Vision concept

The fishbowl strategy can be used to facilitate teacher discussions in professional learning settings and staff meetings. Consider exploring your school’s mission/vision statement as the next school year begins and some new teachers have joined your staff.

Five or six teachers sitting in the center might respond to questions such as, “When in your classroom is the highlighted statement from our vision most observable?” or “What purposeful decisions do you make that illustrate this element?”

We will endeavor to create a meaningful relationship with every student that rewards excellence, stresses self-discipline and creates high expectations.  (Ithaca Junior-Senior High School)

Teachers in the center question paraphrase each other to identify the similarities and differences in their interpretation of the vision and implementation into practice. Teachers observing are comparing their individual thinking with what they are hearing. You might use a process of switching roles after 10 minutes or a process of observers “tapping in” at a spot where they wish to engage. There may be an expectation that everyone has engaged in sharing a response before the activity ends in 30 minutes. At that time individuals might be asked to write a short reflection on what they heard. Collecting those reflections and summarizing them would set the stage for a follow up exploration at a future session. Based on the size of your staff, you could have several fishbowl sessions going on simultaneously.

I often encourage school leaders to examine the school vision with strategies that allow teacher to use it to guide daily experiences for students. A fishbowl might get the needed dialogue started.

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One Response to “ Facilitating Discussions In Classrooms Using the Fishbowl Strategy ”

  1. Tim Seller Says:

    The evaluation tools foster student accountability during “fishbowl” activity. Positive !

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